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Coroners' inconsistent reports muddle efforts to understand shooting deaths

By: Katharina Buchholz
and April Nowicki CU News Corps
August 23, 2014 Updated: August 23, 2014 at 4:20 am

In 2013, at least 547 people were killed by gunshot wounds in Colorado.

Last year, a 1-year-old toddler was shot and killed by her 22-year-old father after he had an argument with the girl's mother in Westminster. A 12-year-old boy got his hands on a gun and used it to take his own life during a family vacation. A 67-year-old man killed his 81-year-old wife and shot himself with a rifle in Delta County.

CU News Corps reporters found these details among hundreds of public records kept by county coroners. The records provided valuable context to the total number of gun deaths, and could help shape a better understanding of why so many people die every year from gunshot wounds.

In January 2013, a group of University of Colorado journalism students began collecting records for every gun death in Colorado for the years 2012 and 2013. The idea was to collect and publish more data than what the state makes available to inform the discussion on gun policy in Colorado. During the project, inspired by Homicide Watch D.C., CU News Corps reporters learned the following:

- A nonstandardized process for requesting public coroners' records makes accessing complete public information about the state's gun deaths extraordinarily time-consuming.

- Custodians of the information sometimes do not understand their obligations.

- Data provided by county coroners often contain information that is not made available by the state - information that provides context to the hundreds of gun deaths that occur each year.

Colorado keeps statistics on every death, including age, race, gender and cause of death, provided by the state's 63 county coroners. State data goes back more than 30 years, and shows that the majority of gun deaths are suicides. But the state provides numbers with few details and no history.

Getting coroner's records for 2012 and 2013 - the only public data that would contain the extra context - took nearly 18 months. A CU News Corps analysis found that coroners' reports look different in almost every county, and they do not all contain the same information.

Getting the information

Many larger counties were familiar with providing the records as public information. El Paso County recorded consistent data, and provided it promptly. Jefferson County sent bi-monthly reports without being reminded. Denver County sent lists in chronological order. Douglas County also sent reports unasked after the initial request.

But not all coroners were willing to hand over their records. After about six months of trying to obtain the records needed to compile the CU News Corps database, more than a third of the counties were deficient in responding. Nine counties took more than three months to reply to requests despite being contacted repeatedly.

Fremont County coroner Carlette Brocious did not provide data for 2013, even though she twice agreed to send information. CU News Corps members called her 
12 times but still have not received 2013 information.

CU News Corps reporters called the coroner in Conejos County eight times and sent two paper mailed requests citing the Colorado Open Records Act. After three and a half months, two reports of deaths in Conejos County were received - one additional gun death was a homicide that was not provided to reporters because of an ongoing police investigation.

Four emails, three phone calls and two postal CORA requests went to Eagle County, where the office phone does not have voicemail. It took almost six months to obtain the reports.

Some coroners did not answer phone calls or emails. Others provided some information but were hesitant to send details such as names, which are public record, and locations, which are not public record but were necessary to avoid duplication in the cases of missing names.

Some coroners said reports had to be requested by the name of the deceased, which was nearly impossible for many deaths that were not reported in the news or in any other identifiable way. Some coroners were combative over the phone - Montrose County coroner Thomas Canfield told one CU News Corps reporter to "figure it out" when asked how to obtain this public information.

If a coroner's death record is not released to the public in the case of a legal investigation or another circumstance, basic information is still provided to compile state statistics. CU News Corps estimates that at least 20 records were not provided during their research because of circumstances such as these.

Pieces missing

One of the goals of the project was to memorialize each person and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, many of which were horrible, tragic events.

At least 28 men killed themselves after experiencing marital and relationship problems. Seventy-five percent of the deaths were suicides, with white males being the largest group among the deceased.

CU News Corps found about 130 reports included toxicology test results, showing that many of the deceased were under the influences of alcohol and drugs.

Unless coroners improve transparency and consistency in record keeping, important insights in the dynamics of Colorado gun deaths will remain hidden. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Colorado's suicide rate was the eighth highest in the nation in 2010, with gun suicide being the most common form of suicide.

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